In 2015, Mark Laycock, an American conductor based in Berlin, visited Philadelphia while touring with the English Chamber Orchestra, and he experienced Musicopia for the first time.
Musicopia is a youth music training program, based in the city and born over 40 years ago out of concern that music education was waning in public schools. The founders advocate music performance to teach discipline, teamwork, and creative development.
Almost 100 kids populate its three ensembles, ranging from very young children handling an instrument for the first time to high school students with years of experience under their belts. Several of the students performed onstage with the English Chamber Orchestra when it toured through town, in a side-by-side concert.
“I’m so impressed by their organization — the heart of the organization and what they do for the lives of these young musicians,” said Laycock. “I naturally gravitated and want to do something for them.”
A year later, out of the blue, Laycock emailed Musicopia and offered a composition, already written and dedicated to the organization. Would the kids like to premiere it?
“That was a nice email to get,” said Daniela Pierson, director of the Musicopia String Orchestra. The piece in 12 movements is called “Musicopia: Suite for String Orchestra,” or, more informally, “Sweet! For String Orchestra.” One of its movements is dedicated to Pierson herself, its melody based on the letters of her first name.
Pierson has been working for the better part of a year to get all three Musicopia ensembles ready to premiere the piece this weekend, at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square.
The piece is tailored to youth orchestras such as Musicopia with a wide range of skill levels. A music director does not have to isolate the seasoned players in the more challenging parts, nor revert to simpler arrangements for the less experienced.
“It’s a challenge – most music teachers find this – to find something challenging and satisfying for the more advanced students that isn’t overwhelming for the younger students,” said Pierson. “It’s interesting and fun to have it all in one piece.”
Laycock, former director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, travels internationally to conduct, and his compositions have been performed by major orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Still, he feels for newbies.
“The high pro world isn’t focused on the very beginning of learning to play an instrument, and what children need for encouragement and to enjoy what they are doing,” he said.
Laycock remembers learning to play the violin as a kid and being given watered-down versions of classics to learn. “I would have loved, as a strong player in junior high, to have pieces that were just fun to play,” he said.
His Musicopia suite has plenty of goofy fun to it, including the “Because You’re Stepping On My Toes” waltz, which features a deliberate stumble in the rhythm, and moments requiring the players to abandon their instruments momentarily to stomp or whistle.
It also has more lyrical movements, like “The Birth of the Butterfly,” that a player can really dig into – if only for 1 1/2 minutes.
“It’s just beautiful, serious music,” said Laycock. “Children have these feelings, too. Being a child is not all about playing a song about a choo-choo train and making a whistle sound. We like to think that’s what childhood is, all happiness, but children have deep feelings and deep emotional connections.”
After the premiere of the Musicopia suite this weekend, Laycock hopes it will be adopted by public school music programs everywhere. Because its 12 movements vary so much, school orchestra directors can mix and match sections to fit their ensembles.
Musicopia will take place on Saturday, May 12 at 5 p.m. at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square, 1904 Walnut Street in Philadelphia.